Dr Kaivalya Mudholkar’s fascination with science and its exploration began at a younger change when she was studying Biology. Her curiosity to find answers to the unknown helped her carve a path for herself in the field as a researcher, and now as an effective leader of research teams.
Managing Editor of CACTUS, a science communication and technology company, Dr Mudholkar is a PhD holder in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and is now managing a team of reviewers and editors.
In an interview with SheThePeople, Dr Kaivalya Mudholkar discusses her STEM career, what inspires her leadership skills as a Managing Director, why financial independence goes a long way in establishing equality and more.
Kaivalya Mudholkar Interview
What made you choose a STEM career?
Since I was young, I was always curious about the way things worked and found the methodical and rational approach of science really fascinating. I was always interested in Biology and, as I studied more, I found it amazing how limitless it was and how one could go deeper and deeper into bodies, cells, and molecules to answer fundamental questions about how our bodies work. I wanted to be a part of that exploration and be actively involved in discovering answers to the unknown.
What was the kind of challenges you faced when you first started?
As anyone in the research industry would know, it’s as much about grit, determination, and patience as it is about knowledge and skill. Working in research forces you to question your assumptions, face failure multiple times, and keep at it until you get results.
“As a young researcher, it was a challenge to stay positive, think critically, and keep at it, but in the long run, these hurdles only made me stronger and gain more respect for the field I was in.”
Gender bias persists even today across industries and levels. How have you dealt with such situations given your vast experience in the field across places?
Fortunately, I have not personally faced gender bias. I was lucky to have a strong independent supervisor who was a woman during my research years, and she was a source of inspiration. Even today, I work for CACTUS, where inclusivity and equality are cornerstones and a huge part of our culture. Having said that, gender bias does persist, and I’ve heard enough stories- whether it’s with respect to hiring, promotions, or pay.
“I think it’s high time organizations and institutions focus actively on gender equality- it’s a long road that’ll require destroying biases and stereotypes through education and training.”
What differentiates CACTUS from its competitors?
What makes us different is its ability to continuously evolve with times and be forward-looking. While the organisation has a razor-sharp focus on customer experience, it also actively creates a challenging but nurturing environment for its employees where they can grow. A recent example would be the decision to go remote-first post after the COVID pandemic. This decision took courage and came with its challenges, but ultimately resulted in better work-life balance, the ability to work from anywhere, reduced travel time, and importantly equalised opportunity irrespective of geography and an expanded talent pool.
From when you started to now, what factors have had the biggest impact on your growth as a leader?
I would have to give credit to the amazing leaders whom I learnt from. I’ve been lucky to have supportive managers throughout, who really set high standards in how to lead by example. Even during my studies, I always admired teachers and professors who could motivate you, generate interest in the subject, and allow you to think creatively (instead of telling you what to do). These are the traits I tried to imbibe when I became a people manager. I also think ‘being a leader’ is a constant learning curve- I’ve tried to listen and learn from others and never fallen into the trap of thinking my way is the best way.
As someone who works with several women at the company, how important do you think mentorship is and what significant role can it play in uplifting more women in the industry?
It is definitely very important. Though we’ve made a lot of progress, women still face several challenges when juggling work and their homes. Providing a sounding board to understand these challenges and actively extending support can go a lot of way in allowing women to flourish at work.
What more do you suggest countries and education systems can adopt when it comes to inspiring women in STEM?
I think it’s important to make it sustainable for women to continue in STEM and succeed. There’s a popular statistic that while over 40 percent of STEM graduates are women in India, only 14 percent make it into the workforce. This is quite a bleak statistic and a reminder for us to make changes across industries. The top reasons for women not being able to continue to include household responsibilities, societal pressure, and the fact that they’re primary caregivers to their children. We need to recognise that women are not dropping out because they’re less skilled, it’s because systems have not been built to support them.
“I truly believe that we urgently need to build systems where women are not forced to choose between work and home. For example, offering flexible timings and child-care or after-school care facilities can go a long way in bridging this gap.”
What is that one piece of advice you would want to give women with respect to financial independence?
Women are often told that they do not need to earn as they will be supported- perhaps first by their parents, and later by their partners. One doesn’t need to earn money only to support themselves. As a woman, being financially independent can give you a lot more – security about your future, self-confidence, the ability to take independent financial decisions, and the ability to break out of any circumstance. I believe it’s extremely important not to be financially dependent as it can really shape the way you live your life.
“Independent financial decisions can help women break out of any circumstance.”
What advice would you give women on their path to entrepreneurship in the field as yours?
My advice would be not to let anyone convince you that something is less suited for you just because you’re a woman. Often, we fall into the trap of stereotyping ourselves because that’s what we hear from the society around us. It’s important to ignore the noise- believe in yourself, stays determined, and keep moving forward.
Suggested reading: How Poonam Chandel Challenges Stereotypes With Her Alco-Bev Startup